Business & GA, Commercial

Aerion, Boom Taking Different Paths to Supersonic Economics

Boom Supersonic's XB-1 supersonic demonstrator. Photo, courtesy of Boom Supersonic.

Aerion and Boom are taking two different economic paths to make supersonic civilian jet travel a reality again by mid-2020s. One is focused on the price insensitivity of business aviation and the other is relying on commercial airline business class customers.

Representatives from the two companies explained during the Royal Aeronautical Society’s “The Economics of Supersonics” event at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., how many aircraft they each expect to sell, what their ticket prices will be and how the technology needed to make a return to civilian supersonic jet travel is already proven.

Aerion has been attempting to build a quieter supersonic jet since 2003, according to Jeff Miller, VP of marketing and communications at Aerion. Its original design was a small supersonic jet with a small cabin powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT8D subsonic engines that were capable of flying at speeds higher than Mach 1.0. But the design of that original prototype eventually proved to be unsuitable, leaving Aerion with what Miller described as a "pretty glider."

Recently at NBAA 2018, the company took a major step forward by partnering with GE Aviation on the Affinity supersonic engine for the AS2 supersonic business jet. Honeywell Aerospace is designing the AS2’s cockpit, and Aerion’s goal is to achieve product design review by June 2020, leading to a first flight of the AS2 in June 2023.

GE Aviation's Affinity engine for the Aerion AS2. Photo, courtesy of Aerion.

Miller said Aerion estimates it will spend close to $4 billion in development costs for the AS2. He estimates achieving type certification in 2025 with entry into service following in 2026. Aerion, unlike Boom, is laser-focused on capturing demand from business aviation passengers, where the cost of tickets is not price sensitive.

“We’re not sure of the airline economics right now. If we produce an airliner, we have to be certain we can sell it to airlines, and they can go and make money with it. Right now, Aerion does not have enough data to guide us in terms of where we might go,” said Miller.

“We’re selling this airplane at $120 million a piece. We estimate that the market is 500 to 600 units over about 20 years,” he added.

In comparison, Boom Supersonic is focused on re-introducing supersonic jet travel to the commercial airline market. The Colorado-based company has already secured a launch customer in Japan Airlines (JAL) for 20 of its airliners and is in discussion with dozens of airlines, according to Eli Dourado, head of global policy and communications at Boom Supersonic.

Boom’s speed goals are also much different than Aerion, as the supersonic airliner is being developed to fly at Mach 2.2 compared to the Mach 1.4 goal that Aerion has. Dourado said Boom is targeting the fourth quarter of 2019 for the first flight of its Mach 2.2 demonstrator. Boom CEO Blake Scholl told Avionics International during the Farnborough International Air Show that the demonstrator will fly with GE J85-15 engines.

The price for a Boom airliner will be $200 million, and the company estimates a market demand between 1,000 to 2,000 aircraft for its first-generation model over 10 years. The aircraft will also be designed using lessons learned from the world’s previous civilian supersonic airliner, the Concorde, which only sold 14 total units to two airlines and stopped flying in June 2003.

The intake for Boom Supersonic's demonstrator aircraft after completing wind-tunnel testing. Photo, courtesy of Boom Supersonic.

Unlike the Concorde’s seating capacity for 100 passengers, Boom’s first-generation airliner will have maximum seating capacity for 50 passengers at ticket prices that are comparable to the cost of a roundtrip business-class commercial airline ticket today.

“We think that our plane will be profitable to fly on 500 routes,” said Dourado. “Trans-Atlantic routes are well-traveled territory, but also trans-Pacific, so think San Francisco to Tokyo in 5.5 hours, which is transformative.”

Flying supersonic speeds at business class commercial airline prices will also be profitable for airlines, Dourado said, because they’ll effectively be able to make twice the number of trips that they do today with subsonic jets. He did admit, though, that unpredictable increases in the cost of jet fuel could impact the economics for Boom in the future. To address that, Boom is trying to match the type of fuel burn airlines are achieving today on a business-class per-seat-mile basis so they’re not disadvantaged if fuel prices go up.

Aerion and Boom are also developing their aircraft to be integrated as much as possible into existing subsonic jet flight operations and air traffic infrastructure. The AS2 will require a runway length of 7,500 feet for takeoff, which means it can fly from executive airports. Boom’s airliner will need more than 10,000 feet for takeoff, which means it will require the type of runways only featured at major commercial hub airports. Dourado said Boom also does not want to have to clear the airspace to land, in the way the Concorde required.

On the regulatory side, the FAA and other civil aviation regulators are anxiously awaiting the data that will be produced not only from flight testing by Aerion and Boom, but also the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator aircraft that NASA will fly for the first time in 2021. That aircraft will fly regular commercial routes to help the aviation regulatory community gain a better understanding of how people on the ground will respond to sonic booms generated by the aircraft when flying over land.

The FAA, though, is ready to embrace a new era of supersonic civilian jet travel. In May, the agency said it would initiate two rulemaking activities on civil supersonic aircraft noise. The first activity is a proposed rule for noise certification of supersonic aircraft, and the second is a proposed rule to streamline and clarify the procedures to obtain special flight authorization for conducting supersonic flight testing in the U.S.

Michael O’Donnell, executive director of air traffic safety oversight service for the FAA, told attendees of the Economics of Supersonics event that the data generated by Aerion, Boom and NASA is crucial.

“What we really need is the data and information to help us craft and formulate rule making that will make a difference. Right now we have restrictions for every rule that comes out we have to get rid of two, and wouldn’t it be nice if one of those rules talked about sonic boom? But we can’t just eliminate it, we have to do it scientifically through engineering through working with communities, working with Congress and covering all the bases and not slow down the innovation piece,” said O’Donnell.

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